As a child, whom did you want to be when you grew up? A firefighter? A professional athlete? Where did this idea come from? Something you saw on television? Or perhaps you were emulating parent or other significant adult. As you entered high school, it’s likely you began to think more seriously about your future. You met with your guidance counselor and created a plan for your future—you took specific courses, applied to particular colleges, or volunteered to gain firsthand experience for that hoped-for career. As a young adult, you continue to have thoughts about the future. You may wish for that ideal job or even fantasize about winning the lottery. In all, our lives are filled with hopes, dreams, and desires for the future. These future-oriented self-perceptions, or possible selves, are the subject of this entry.
Definition and Characterization of Possible Selves
Possible selves, a term coined by Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius, are described as how an individual thinks about his or her potential and future. An individual’s possible selves are thought to be the cognitive link between past experiences and future hopes, desires, fears, and fantasies. They represent what we hope to become as well as what we hope to avoid becoming; we call these hoped for and feared selves, respectively. Possible selves that are more likely to be achieved focus on who we want to be (e.g., a mountain climber) versus what we might like to do (climb a mountain). Both hoped-for and feared selves have been shown to motivate us to act; we develop strategies to achieve our hoped-for selves and avoid feared selves. Importantly, even selves that have little likelihood of being achieved (for example, the lottery winner self-described in the first paragraph) can carry significant emotional weight. Thus, a young athlete could yearn for the hoped-for self of winning an Olympic medal, something that may be unlikely but at least remotely possible, or a sedentary, overweight adult could be able to clearly envision a possible self as thin and strong, even though he or she may be doing little to achieve that possible self. As Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius noted, an individual is free to create any type of possible self he or she wants as long as these are important to the individual and consistent with the sociocultural and historical world in which he or she belongs.
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Factors Related to the Endorsement of Possible Selves
People seem to have no trouble coming up with and describing their possible selves, regardless of age, gender, race, or other individual differences. In a study examining possible selves in people between the ages of 18 and 86, researchers found that no one had trouble generating possible selves. The possible selves ranged from very general (to be happy, to be healthy) to very specific (to play the piano well for my own enjoyment). Other studies support the ease with which people can think of and verbalize possible selves. Even older adults can relate to the possible self-question, Who do you want to be when you grow up? For an older person, this is likely to focus on issues related to health and independence, such as “not being a burden on my family” or “able to enjoy retirement.”
In fact, researchers have found age differences in possible selves. Younger adults tend to emphasize hoped-for selves related to family (becoming a mother) or occupations (having a job I enjoy), and feared selves focus on family and relationships (never finding the “right” person) or are physical in nature (being in poor health). While family hoped-for selves of middle-aged and older adults are also endorsed (seeing my children graduate from college), possible selves in the physical category (be healthy and active, be in good health) become much more important with age. Feared selves are commonly reported in the physical category as well, focusing on avoiding ill health or becoming dependent on others. The fact that possible selves differ across age groups is an indication that this component of the self continues to evolve as we age, with some possible selves staying important and others fading into the background. However, possible selves have also been shown to be resistant to change. In one of the few studies examining possible selves over time, older adults’ hoped-for and feared selves showed much more stability than change over a 5-year span. The changes that did occur involved health-related and physical hoped-for selves, which were added to existing possible selves.
Stability of Possible Selves
Although it might be difficult to see how possible selves can be stable and changeable at the same time, the concept of stability and change is actually a core principle in human development. For example, we can think of our personality as a very stable entity, but if we look at components that make up one’s personality, we see considerable change over time. The principle of stability and change allows us to plan for the future (e.g., knowing how we generally react to situations) while allowing for more subtle changes that fit the situation we find ourselves in. In a similar way, we may have possible selves that remain very important over our lives (e.g., being an active person) but add possible selves that fit a particular context or time frame (e.g., being able to play with my grandchildren).
Planning Achievement of Hoped-for Self and Avoidance of Feared Self
Possible selves have been linked to long-term goals and identity. Like goals, possible selves require an action plan to be achieved. Since they are associated with our identity, possible selves act as a strong incentive for action and change. You can think of possible selves as “supercharged” goals; they are not just something we want to do (like run a marathon) but someone we want to be (a healthy adult, able to achieve a goal and persist over time). Building a bridge between who we are now (our current selves) with who we want to be (our future or possible selves) provides an opportunity for behavior change. The following example highlights the general principle of comparing one’s current self with a future (possible) self to initiate action. This process utilizes well-studied techniques from sport and exercise psychology (SEP), including goal setting and imagery. The unique aspect is the specific focus on the self and one’s identity.
Imagine, if you will, two young athletes with a desire to achieve a high level of performance. Athlete A is a young man who wants to earn a college scholarship to play baseball. Athlete B is a young woman who wants to join the professional golf tour and compete with the best in the world. In both cases, they share the possible self of being an elite athlete. Their current selves are also somewhat similar; they see themselves as accomplished in their sport, have aspirations to reach an even higher level, and believe they have the mental toughness needed to be successful. Developing an action plan that links their current self to their future self can help them achieve their goal. Research shows that well-conceived and complex possible selves are most likely to be realized, so the more vivid the plan, the better. These detailed plans facilitate the development of self-regulatory strategies, defined as the ability to work toward one’s short and long-term goals. To begin this planning process, both athletes would do well to examine their strengths and weaknesses. Having a clear possible self-facilitates self-monitoring, a key step in developing self-regulatory skills. Athlete A might then create a highlight video of college players he admires, so as to “see” his possible self-more clearly. He would continue on from there, developing specific technical or psychological strategies to help him move from his current self to his hoped-for self. Similarly, Athlete B might create benchmarks toward attainment of her ultimate possible self (e.g., compete successfully in regional tournaments, play in a mini-tour, attend Q-school). By developing a plan and a process for evaluating movement toward their hoped-for self, these athletes will be more likely to achieve this self over time.
Although little research in the sport domain has explicitly tested the use of possible selves as an intervention strategy, research in the exercise realm has. For example, Judith Ouellette and her colleagues asked students to describe themselves 10 to 20 years in the future as either an exerciser (hoped-for self) or a non-exerciser (feared self), then were asked to provide specific details of those possible selves (thereby increasing the specificity of those selves). Both groups given this brief intervention showed increased exercise behavior 4 weeks later. It may seem surprising that the feared selves were equally motivational as hoped-for selves. However, there is evidence that pairing a feared self with a hoped-for self is motivational, since the discrepancy is more likely to lead to action.
In a recent follow-up to that study, Elisa Murru and Kathleen Martin Ginis examined the effects of a possible selves intervention on young adults. They were interested in how possible selves impact behavior—that is, the mechanism. Not only was the intervention successful in promoting exercise (the intervention group had higher levels of activity than a control at 4 and 8 weeks) but they also found that, as predicted by theory, one’s confidence in utilizing self-regulatory strategies (specifically planning) in part allowed the possible self to impact actual behavior. In sum, their research provided further evidence that possible selves impact exercise behavior by facilitating the development of self-regulatory strategies, which in turn makes you more confident about your ability to achieve that possible self. Although research in this area is just beginning, these studies provide a compelling starting point, suggesting that possible selves can be an effective strategy to elicit health behavior change.
The concept of possible selves is highly relevant to sport and exercise contexts. Most of us have ideas about our future we can verbalize, and these future-oriented selves have been shown to impact our behaviors. For adults, a large percentage of these possible selves relate to health, well-being, and our physical selves, so it seems quite reasonable that physical activity (PA) can be the strategy that links current and future selves. Although possible selves have the potential to be an intervention strategy for sport contexts as well, more research is needed. Most of us contemplate our hoped-for and feared selves but may not have taken the time to examine what we need to do to realize these dreams and desires. With a little work, possible selves can become actual (achieved) selves; it is a concept ripe for future research and practice in sport and exercise contexts.
- Frazier, L. D., Hooker, K., Johnson, P. M., & Kaus, C. R. (2000). Continuity and change in possible selves in later life: A 5-year longitudinal study. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 22(3), 237–243.
- Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954–969.
- Murru, E. C., & Martin Ginis, K. A. (2010). Imagining the possibilities: The effects of a possible selves intervention on self-regulatory efficacy and exercise behavior. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32(4), 537–554.
- Ouellette, J. A., Hessling, R., Gibbons, F. X., Reis-Bergan, M., & Gerrard, M. (2005). Using images to increase exercise behavior: Prototypes versus possible selves. Personality and Social Psychology, 31(5), 610–620.
- Whaley, D. E. (2003). Future-oriented self-perceptions and exercise behavior in middle-aged women. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 11, 1–17.
- Whaley, D. E., & Schroyer, R. J. (2010). I yam what I yam: The power of the self in exercise behavior. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 1, 25–32.